Saturday, February 29, 2020

Kate Briggs' This Little Art (#Fitzcarraldo Fortnight)

Well, I've got a couple of hours to squeeze in one last book for Kaggsy's and Lizzy's Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, but I can't dilly-dally...

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay/meditation on the translation of works from one language to another. Briggs herself is the translator of two of Barthes' late lectures from French to English and she brings that experience to bear, but she also looks at other translators, in particular Helen Lowe-Porter (the person responsible for originally translating most of Thomas Mann into English) and Dorothy Bussy (who was André Gide's first translator into English.) And, in fact, the title of her book comes from an off-hand, possibly meant as disparaging, comment by Lowe-Porter about her own work.

Lowe-Porter has taken a bit of a beating over the years, and Briggs is supportive of her work and gives reasonable indulgence to Lowe-Porter's method and the possibility of errors. She's even better, I thought, on the complicated, but loving, relationship between Bussy and Gide, which comes across as touching in Briggs' telling.

For me, one of the most interesting suggestions in the book is Briggs' notion that the translator/artist has a sense of recreating the original work, adopting it as one's own, pushing it almost into the area of original creation.
"All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another." (p.138)
She cites an essay by Elena Ferrante with an interesting example about Ferrante's reading of Madame Bovary and wanting to write a story in Italian that could the very sentence Ferrante found in Flaubert. She doesn't cite, but could, something like Zadie Smith's retelling of Howards End as On Beauty. Is that a translation? Well it is a carrying-across (the Latin root of the word) of a story on class relations, on the relations between art and commerce, from 1900 to 2000. From a white England to a multiracial United States.  It's a fascinating idea and Briggs pushes it hard, but is careful not to push it farther than it should go.

The other thing that definitely needs to be remarked is the prose, and here, I'm afraid, I was less taken with the book. I wrote 'essay/meditation' above with deliberation: Briggs has a way of meditatively circling around an idea without ever quite lighting upon it. Some of this may come from Barthes, whom I scarcely know (and haven't read the works Briggs translated.) Sometimes it may be to remind of the way a translator works, trying out different words before settling on the preferred one. But some of it I just found maddeningly repetitive. Robinson Crusoe's table! I love Robinson Crusoe. But I will not be able to reread Defoe for quite a long time into the future without thinking, "Robinson Crusoe needs a table...He wanted a table because it was wanting." (p.237) And yes, I did definitely elide there.

Ah, well. Still a fascinating read.

In Googling for an image of the cover, I saw that Benjamin Moser reviewed the book for the New York Times. Moser himself is sometimes a controversial figure, but he cares about translation and is responsible for our most recent versions of Clarice Lispector. (As translator, but also as general editor.) But he fundamentally misread this book, I'm afraid. He sees Briggs as advocating some sort of translatorial relativism, as if all translations are equally good. No. "Translation cannot dispense with...the effort to get it right." (p.140) Now maybe Briggs' way of talking around an issue and seeing all sides made it a bit more difficult to see what she was saying, but, heck, I got it, and I felt Moser was just phoning it in, working out some issues he'd been irritated about in the past. Bah.

And that leaves me with no unread Fitzcarraldo Editions books! I may very well have to do something about that...

Thanks to Kaggsy and Lizzy for the great idea and for hosting!

Friday, February 28, 2020

The Indian Vampire Story

A few weeks ago I read Phillip Ernest's novel The Far Himalaya and enjoyed it. That led me to read his first novel The Vetala, even though I would have said from the description it's not my kind of thing. I think it's even better, and very good indeed.

I haven't read much vampire literature--Dracula fairly recently and one Anne Rice novel years ago--and I generally steer clear of the films, so I don't particularly know, but this strikes me as fairly innovative. And even if I'm wrong, and it's not innovative in the world of vampires, I think it's still a very good story.

That story takes place mostly in India, and Nada Marjonivic, a Sanskrit scholar, is studying a seven-hundred-year-old book, the Amrutajijnasa, or the Inquiry into the Undead. Just from the translation of that title you may suspect how her investigation is going to go, and, of course, you're partly right. But there are complications.

Dr. Marjonivic has just returned to India from her European university to study what she believes is the only existing copy of the book; her elderly mentor and fellow Sanskrit scholar has just died and she will now be in charge of the study and of the manuscript itself.

Vetala is a Sanskrit word and vetalas are actual undead figures in Indian lore, though the manuscript Inquiry into the Undead is a creation for the novel. Dr. Marjonivic has experience of these Indian undead in the past; now in her mid-40s, her boyfriend twenty years before was killed by one. The Inquiry is not just an inquiry; it also indicates, though imperfectly, how to lay one to rest. The titular vetala of the novel became one at the time the Inquiry was written, and has carried on, wreaking havoc, for those seven hundred years.

I thought the novel made very good use of its Indian setting. Hindu reincarnation complicates the more familiar Western version of the vampire; an episode from the Mahabharata influences the choices the characters make; the multilingual nature of Indian society is important; the countryside, with its temples, are where the events take place.

The reader gradually comes to understand the emotional tangle that accompanies the more spectacular supernatural events.

Very enjoyable.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

General Summary

We are very slightly changed
From the semi-apes who ranged
  India's prehistoric clay;
He that drew the longest bow
Ran his brother down, you know,
  As we run men down to-day.
'Dowb,' the first of all his race,
Met the mammoth face to face
  On the lake or in the cave:
Stole the steadiest canoe,
Ate the quarry others slew,
  Died--and took the finest grave. 
When they scratched the reindeer-bone,
Some one made the sketch his own,
  Filched it from the artist--then
Even in those early days,
Won a simple Viceroy's praise
  Through the toil of other men.
Ere they hewed the Sphinx's visage
Favouritism governed kissage,
  Even as it does in this age. 
Who shall doubt 'the secret hid
Under Cheops' pyramid'
Was that the contractor did
  Cheops out of several millions?
Or that Joseph's sudden rise
To Comptroller of Supplies
Was a fraud of monstrous size
  On King Pharaoh's swart civilians? 
Thus, the artless songs I sing
Do not deal with anything
  New or never said before.
As it was in the beginning
Is to-day official sinning,
  And shall be for evermore!
-Rudyard Kipling

This is the lead poem in Kipling's first published collection, Departmental Ditties of 1886.

Jennifer is back in town and has a poem this week she brought back with. Yay!

Monday, February 24, 2020

Call Me Ishmael

"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman's): exploration." 

Charles Olson was born in Massachusetts in 1910 and grew up there. He attended Wesleyan, Yale, and finally worked on a Ph.D. at Harvard in American Studies. In 1939 he won a Guggenheim grant to study Melville. Call Me Ishmael was the result. After various war-related jobs, and a stint working for the Democratic party and FDR's re-election in 1944, the book came out in 1947. Though he had academic qualifications, as the quote above might show, it's not exactly an academic book.

Olson might have seen SPACE as the crucial American quality because he occupied a lot of it: he was 6'8" tall.

The book has a certain oracular quality to it:
"I am interested in a Melville who decided sometime in 1850 to write a book about the whaling industry and what happened to a man in command of one of the most successful machines Americans had perfected up to that time--the whaleship. 
This captain, Ahab by name, knew space. He rode it across the seven seas. He was an able skipper, what the fishing people I was raised with call a highliner. Big catches: he brought back holds barrel full of oil of the sperm, the light of American and European communities up until the 19th century. 
This Ahab had gone wild. The object of his attention was something unconscionably big and white. He had become a specialist: he had all space concentrated into the form of a whale called Moby-Dick. And he assailed it as Columbus an ocean, La Salle a continent, the Donner Party their winter Pass."
"Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives."
After the publication of Call Me Ishmael, Olson first taught and then later became the rector of Black Mountain College, in the 50s the gathering place of a substantial strand of modern American art: poetry, dance, music, sculpture and other visual arts; Robert Duncan, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly. Olson himself was also a noted poet.

I read the book umpteen years ago and I remembered it more for its oracular quality about the nature of American art--about which I think he's interesting and astute--and I suspect that's what it's read for now. After all my edition is City Lights Books, and not some university press. I was twigged to it by friends interested in the American avant-garde, not by Melville scholars. He's definitely influenced by his era: the Great Depression has led him to think about American art in terms of economics and industry.

But in reading it again, and right after reading Moby-Dick, I have also discovered that he did real work on Melville. The Melville revival--the Moby-Dick revival--is, in 1947, not to mention 1939 when he gets the grant, still quite new. It's not so long since Melville died. Olson has gotten hold, from Melville's granddaughter, of Meville's personal copy of Shakespeare, in six volumes, the one Melville read just before composing Moby-Dick, and there are scribblings in it and Olson builds arguments around them. He's seen Melville's copy of Don Quixote, which Melville read in 1856 and has other scribblings, and Olson has things to say about that.

Olson has also read around in the history of the whaling industry and is full of fascinating facts: whaling was the third largest source of export goods for the US in the 1840s; of 900 whaling ships world wide in 1846, 735 were American; the Essex, the ship destroyed by a whale and model for the Pequod, set sail on its fatal voyage in 1819, the year of Melville's birth; of the eight survivors from the voyage of the Essex, at least five went on to become captains of their own ship.

It's fascinating, short, (120 pages) and very highly recommended.

Actual facts about Olson come from Robert Creeley's introduction to Olson's Selected Writings, which I also pulled off the shelf to look at.

One more book for Brona's Moby-Dick readalong!

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Two by Brian Dillon (#FitzcarraldoFortnight)

I first read Brian Dillon's Essayism (2017) just under two years ago. I didn't blog about it, but I did feel it was one of the best things I read that year. So when I saw In The Dark Room late last year, I picked it up. I read it this week and then reread Essayism.

In The Dark Room (2005) is Dillon's first book, and the Fitzcarraldo Edition is a reprint with an introduction by Frances Wilson.
"...a reflection on memory might also be a reflection on my memory..."
-p. 235

That quote is a bit of an aside in context, but gives a strong sense of the way the book (I suspect) came into being for Dillon. He had a sad and (what has fortunately, in the West at least, become) a rare childhood: he was orphaned at twenty. His mother died when he was fifteen after a long bout with a painful disease, scleroderma; she was also afflicted by depression. Then his father died of a heart attack five years later. So when he started thinking about memory as a topic, it's understandable he might not want to include an examination of his own. But what memories do any of us have more readily available to examine?

So he centers his study of memory around his memories of his own childhood, and of his parents. There are five organizing areas in the book, hooks that memory often gets hung on: the house he grew up in, the things that survived his parents, photographs of his parents, their actual bodies, and revisiting the places associated with his childhood. What does it mean to look at a photograph of one's parents together before one was conceived? What can you say about them, though knowing them well, but not in that moment?

Dillon is forthright about his own battles with depression, and 'The Dark Room' alludes more to that than to the process of making photographs. He writes with deep reference to other literary investigations of memory, with Augustine's Confessions and Proust being particularly important, but also Joe Brainard's I Remember, Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Virginia Woolf, Sebald. A fascinating investigation.

Then I went back to Essayism. Dillon takes the word from Musil's The Man Without Qualities. The title of chapter 62, in the Sophie Wilkins translation, reads:

I remembered Essayism as a wonderfully insightful book about the glories of reading essays, sometimes (and especially for Dillon) a melancholic pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. And it is very good on a number of essayists. When I first read it, I was so overwhelmed by his (judicious, but real) praise for Palinurus' (Cyril Connolly's) impossible masterpiece The Unquiet Grave I immediately went and reread that. He was equally good, I thought, on Sontag, on Sir Thomas Browne, on Elizabeth Hardwick, on Montaigne. Less time was spent--but still it was quality time-- with Didion, Benjamin, Barthes, Cioran, Gass. For instance he says of first volume of Sontag's diary, (from when she was a teenager and in her early twenties) that it is 'quite endearing in its pretension.' Which is exactly what I thought when I read it, though without the wit to phrase it so well. He was so good I wished he'd told me about essayists I already loved, Hazlitt in particular.

I remembered from that first reading there was an autobiographical component as well, but it was only in reading it immediately after In The Dark Room that I realized how important that was to its conception. That old black dog had been hanging around again and Dillon needed to work. For Dillon, essayism, to essay, to look closely at things and write about them, is a crucial part of maintaining who we are. Good thoughts for a blogger.

I think both of these are very good. Essayism is a little more outward-looking, and I prefer it, probably for that reason, but In The Dark Room is also very good, and especially if your tastes run more to autobiography or memoir.

I also have a copy of This Little Art by Kate Briggs and I'm hoping to read it this week. I earlier read Flights and actually as a Fitzcarraldo book; it was later released by Riverhead (Penguin) and the Fitzcarraldo isn't distributed here anymore. I liked it, but it did occasionally make me squeamish, I admit. I very much liked Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of Dead, but read that in the Riverhead hardback and didn't blog about it.

Thanks to Kaggsy for the great idea of hosting this!

Side note: I'm forever fascinated by the vagaries of my spellchecker. Didion and Barthes are famous enough that my spellchecker approves. Cioran and Gass, enh, not so much. I think of Palinurus as a pretty important character in the Aeneid, as well as being Cyril Connolly's pseudonym, but that's not good enough. Aeneas himself checks out OK, unsurprisingly. Anchises yes, but Achates, however faithful he might have been, no.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

The Seasons
They whom their mothers bare through Summer heat,
Are boys of Autumn, and a fruit complete. 
They whom their mothers bare through April rain,
Are new as April, and as April vain. 
They whom their mothers in dark Winters bare,
Wake to a barren world, and straight despair. 
But they that hold through Winter to the Spring
Despair as I do, and, as I do, sing.
-Hilaire Belloc

I'm a spring baby myself, though early spring. Might have been closer to that season of 'dark Winters' in my more northerly climate. 

This comes from my commonplace book of years ago. My handwriting has only deteriorated since then. I no longer have any idea where I first came across this poem, but in Googling to check the text it seems to show up in the Internet Archive's version of the second edition of Belloc's Sonnets and Verse(1938) but it doesn't show up in the earlier version of that book at Project Gutenberg. According to the Internet Archive, the capitalization should be as I've typed it, not as I've written it.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Outline for a long post on Moby-Dick

"And so here, O Reader, has the time come for us two to part. Toilsome was our journeying together; not without offence; but it is done...Yet our relation was a kind of sacred one; doubt not that!...Ill stands it with me if I have spoken falsely; thine also it was to hear truly. Farewell."

Humpty and Herman sitting around with some poetry in the background.
Shakespeare is above and to the right. Milton further above and to the left.
Quoting Carlyle (from the very end of The French Revolution) may seem a little odd in thinking about Moby-Dick, but that peroratio comes to mind for me pretty much every time I finish a long and difficult book.

So what are the things that occurred to me on this, my second complete reading of Moby-Dick?

Funny: It really is funny in the beginning. First, Ishmael's voice is comic. He's going to knock the hats off people if he doesn't cut loose in some other way. Then he gets cozened into sleeping with a cannibal. Bildad and Peleg are the Mutt and Jeff of ship-owners.

Three Parts: The novel comes in three parts. There is a little intermingling of the parts here and there, but basically they are separate. The first is everything up till they lose sight of shore and Ahab appears. This is the funny part. We learn about Ishmael, we like him. We learn about some of the other crew members as well, Queequeg in particular. Queequeg, of course, is simply a funny name.

The second part is reportorial/scientific. It's the longest. We learn about whales and the process of whaling. This is the part that bores people now, and I believe where I punted on my first attempt (in high school) to read Moby-Dick. But it is interesting, if less so than the rest. Reading Delbanco's biography earlier informed me to some degree the reportorial was the reason people read Melville's earlier, more successful books. Curiosity about a subject is definitely a reason to read novels, as well as non-fiction.

The third part is the symbolically-loaded tragic ending. I'm not going to do a plot summary. You know how it ends. It is both exciting and affecting, in a tragic flaw kind of way.

Epic Similes: I could have been reading the Iliad. I mean, really, I could have.
"As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab's many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay."  -Chapter 119
"The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon-ball, missent, becomes a plough-share and turns up the level field." -Chapter 134
Homer's got nothing on this dude.

Language: Which brings me to language. Nearing the end of my reading I made a list of roughly contemporary novels. (Moby-Dick comes out in 1851.)
David Copperfield, 1849-50
Wuthering Heights, 1847
Jane Eyre, 1847
Villette, 1853
Vanity Fair, 1848
Scarlet Letter, 1850
The language in Moby-Dick doesn't sound like any of those to me, though I didn't go back and look. Not even Wuthering Heights or Scarlet Letter. It's weirdly out of its time. The Delbanco biography said that Melville had ordered up Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir Thomas Browne from his bookseller before he started writing Moby-Dick in earnest, and Melville is clearly channelling a language already around two hundred years old for him. Quite successfully, I'd say. But also: Carlyle. Sartor-Resartus comes out in book form in 1836, and Melville could have read that as well as The French Revolution (quoted above) and On Heroes and Hero-Worship. I have no idea if Melville did read Carlyle, but Carlyle is famous (so it's likely enough) and he's the one roughly contemporary author whose language sounds to me something like Melville's. It may just be that both of them were absorbing Burton and Browne, though.

Macbeth: As long as we're thinking about those Shakespearean precursors, I've seen mention of King Lear. Well, of course. But not Macbeth. But just as Macbeth had two pledges he would not die, so does Ahab. But Birnam Wood did come to Dunsinane, and a man not of woman born showed at the just the wrong moment for Macbeth. So, too, does the Parsee go before Ahab, but appear again; and so, too, does Ahab die by hemp, though in the middle of the ocean.

Quotes: I haven't been issuing quotes from my reading as I went along (though thanks! to Brona and Rick and Denise and Laurie for some great ones.) But I couldn't resist a few myself, even though they're likely enough to be duplicates now...
"It is not down in any map; true places never are." - Chapter 12
"Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth--" -Chapter 29 (Oh, that Stubb. Another comic.)
"God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught--nay but the draught of a draught." - Chapter 32 (What, was he reading Pessoa, too?)
"For what he ate did not so much relieve his hunger, as keep it immortal within him." - Chapter 33 (Flask sounds a bit like myself as a teenager.)
"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Chapter 39 (Another fine Stubb-ism.)
"To accomplish his object Ahab must use tools; and of all the tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order." - Chapter 46
"Thou should'st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens hate ye, that thou can'st not go mad?" - Chapter 113
"There is no steady unretracing progress in this life;" - Chapter 114 
Some Critics: A couple of years ago I read Lawrence Buell's The Dream of The Great American Novel. I got it back from the library recently, and though I didn't reread the whole book, I looked at the Moby-Dick part; he lumps Moby-Dick with Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as one of four approaches to the Great American Novel; these three are under the heading 'Imagined Communities.' (The other approaches are: up-from narratives, examinations of race, and The Scarlet Letter, which he puts in its own category.) I recommend the Buell if you're interested in the subject.

I'm also likely to try to read Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael by the end of the month, and maybe (maybe!) D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Here are the other posts of mine mostly relating to critical work on Moby-Dick and Melville.

One Amusing Fact: Starbucks, the coffee chain, was named for Moby-Dick's Starbuck, but only after Howard Schultz convinced Gordon Bowker, "No one's going to drink a cup of Pequod!" True that, Howie. (At least according to Schultz' own book , co-written with Dori Jones Yang, about Starbucks and titled Pour Your Heart Into It, quoted in Buell.)

And: you know, Moby-Dick really is something great.

Thanks to Brona for organizing the readalong!

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Poem For A Thursday

On A Fly Drinking From My Cup

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away. 
Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine's a summer, mine's no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they're gone,
Will appear as short as one.

-William Oldys

I'm kind of hoping for something north of four score myself, but William Oldys (1696-1761) beat his projected three score by only a little. The numbers may be up in the air, but the sentiment applies whatever the numbers.

This is considered a classic example of English anacreontics. Which has nothing much to do metrically with the actual Greek poet Anacreon. The English anacreontic is a seven-syllable line beginning with an accented syllable. Anacreon wrote poems in an eight-syllable line, and his metrics didn't even care about accents.

On the other hand, both the authors of English anacreontics and Anacreon himself wrote poems about drinking. Though you wouldn't necessarily know it from the text, I suspect that cup is likely to hold wine...

Jennifer shared a great Yeats poem this week.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Joan Flood's Left Unsaid (#CanBookChallenge)

Left Unsaid is the story of Delia Buckley, a Catholic Irish woman born in the late 1940s. The story is mostly set in Kiltilly, what I assume is a made-up village, near to Limerick, in Ireland. The novel occurs in two times:

In 1967, Delia has an affair with Daniel Wolfe, married, twenty years older, a famous author, Protestant, and owner of the village's Big House. She gets pregnant, thinks maybe he'll leave his wife for her, but, of course, she's wrong.

More of the novel occurs in 1990. Daniel Wolfe is now widowed and recently diagnosed with terminal cancer; Delia Buckley is an established nurse specializing in end-of-life care. Daniel offers to hire her--at well above her usual rate--to look after him until the end. He's presumably feeling guilty, and she's wary of the tangle, but she needs the money: her sister is institutionalized and her aging parents' farm is mortgaged to the hilt.

The novel starts with a bang, and it ends well, too, with a satisfying amount of surprise and resolution. There was a point in the middle, though, where I was a little less happy. With a title like Left Unsaid and the backstory outlined above, we expect some secrets. Quite unsurprisingly Delia didn't get the abortion Daniel gave her the check for in 1968. Ah, but where's the child? was a question we were clearly meant to ask.

But there were too many secrets. (So very many secrets!) This led to some portentous prose in the middle whose double-meaning irony I admit to not quite seeing through, but was too obviously there. "Surely she'd understand that if her mother felt the need to stay away from the family all those years there was a good reason for it." "Your mother kept things from you for a good reason, I'm sure." There were a few too many statements along those lines.

Ah, well. I still enjoyed it. The prose is clear and straightforward, with a pleasant acknowledgment of Irish dialect. (For example, streelish--a word I didn't know and which I see my spell-checker disapproves of, but is easily Google-able.)

Left Unsaid came out with Signature Editions in 2017. Part of my process of poking around in Canadian small presses. Joan B. Flood is a Canadian who emigrated from Ireland. She's written an earlier YA novel, plus some shorter works, none of which I've read.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Poem For A Thursday: Cardinal Wolsey

So farewell to the little good you bear me.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man, to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost;
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventur'd,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me, and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must forever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:
I feel my heart new open'd. O! how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes' favours.
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have;
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.
This is a soliloquy by Cardinal Wolsey from Henry VIII. Wolsey, has just been fired from his job as Lord Chancellor, because Wolsey was unable to secure a papal annulment of the marriage between Henry and his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. Ahem. Henry usually didn't just fire people, and Wolsey is on the run for what he fears is his life.

Henry VIII is a late play in the Shakespearean corpus, probably not entirely written by Shakespeare, but with the help of John Fletcher. If you look, you'll note a lot of the lines are eleven-syllable, ending with an unaccented syllable. This is supposed to be characteristic of Fletcher. But nevertheless an annotated edition I read once said this had to be written by Shakespeare, it was too good to be written by Fletcher. Poor Fletcher, maybe he had a good day, and still it was discounted...

Well, be it Fletcher or Shakespeare, this is one of my favorite soliloquies, and from a play not often read or performed. I bring it out now for all you who are (re)-reading Hilary Mantel in preparation for the drop of the final part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy this spring. I haven't started rereading myself, but I'm planning on it.

'Mercy/of a rude stream' served Henry Roth as the title of his magnum opus.

Jennifer has a powerful Tony Harrison poem this week.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Henry James' The American

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
Hunh. You caught me. That's actually Jane Austen and not Henry James at all. But one of the people in that universe of truth-acknowledgers is Christopher Newman, the titular American of Henry James' novel. He's got a fortune and he wants a wife.

That's not the only thing he's up to, of course. He's in Paris to civilize himself and marriage, he figures, is part of the civilizing process, along with learning to eat with a fork.

We first meet Newman in the Louvre, a suitably civilized place, in 1868, where he's trying to educate himself about art. Newman is pretty clearly meant to be the best type of American: though he was forced to go to work at fifteen and forgo any advanced education, he's interested in culture and recognizes the value of higher things. But when he worked, his labors were rewarded:
"Made your everlasting fortune?"
Christopher Newman was silent for a moment, and then, with a tranquil smile, he answered: "Yes."
As a consequence Newman can go to Paris and cheerfully gallivant around Europe in search of culture. And he wants to. Because the process of acquiring wealth hasn't coarsened him.

Soon after Newman arrives in Paris, he meets an old acquaintance, Tom Tristram. Tristram is quite the contrast, 'a great gossip and tattler...' [whose] '...only aspirations were to hold out at poker, at his club, to know the names of all the cocottes...' But then he meets Tristam's wife, who is more cultured than her husband, and it's through her the main thread of the plot begins. He tells her:
"Since you ask me," said Newman, "I will say frankly that I want to marry. It is time, to begin with; before I know it, I shall be forty."
Lizzie Tristram suggests the most eligible woman in Paris is Madame de Cintré, a widow at twenty-five, a daughter of the aristocratic de Bellegarde family. She arranges the two of them meet, Newman is convinced, and the plot is set in motion.

Over the course of the novel, we learn some backstory about Newman. He's ironic and deprecating about the sources of his wealth: did well with washtubs, not so well in leather, 'successful in copper, only so-so in railroads, and a hopeless fizzle in oil," he tells us. He fought for the Union during the Civil War (Tristram steered clear) and rose to the rank of Brigadier-General. The most telling episode of his wealth-acquisition comes early in the novel when he's talking to Tom Tristram: he had the opportunity to pull off a coup and deprive an avowed enemy of $60,000; in the end he decides vengeance wasn't worth it, and as for the money, it wasn't that much. (Though Tristram says he wouldn't have forgone it.)

Newman's naiveté in the face of European customs is also well-portrayed. In the very first chapter at the Louvre, he meets Mademoiselle de Noémie, and makes the acquaintance of her father, who will go on to give him French lessons. She is in the Louvre, apparently an art student, copying one of the masterpieces; Newman is taken with quality of the painting and buys it on the spot, commissioning her to paint more for his soon-to-be established private collection. Newman thinks it good, and we do, too, as far as we can tell; but it soon appears that de Noémie is not a very good painter, and is, in fact, one of those Parisian cocottes.

Newman goes on to befriend Valentin de Bellegarde, Madame de Cintré's younger brother. He, too, tells Newman his sister is a worthy catch. But the other members of the de Bellegarde family are less certain about this rich, but not aristocratic, American.

So this is our hero: hard-working, curious, willing to learn, honorable, naive. A good American. Does he marry Madame de Cintré? Should he want to? Well, you'll just have to find out...

The American (1877) is early Henry James. If you're one of those people who goes around in terror of late Henry James (Reese raises a hand here...) this is not one of those: it's really quite readable. I felt the ending a little unnecessarily melodramatic, so it doesn't replace Washington Square as my favorite early Henry James, but it's a very good entry. Recommended.

A book off my Classics Club list...

Also the novel is set almost entirely in Paris; James had moved to Paris' Quartier Latin in 1875. I'm using it for my France book for Gilion's European Reading Challenge